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Four Friends: Promising Lives Cut Short

William D. Cohan. Flatiron, $28.99 (384p) ISBN 978-1-250-07052-4

Prep school grads drift toward untimely ends in this underwhelming biographical elegy. Business journalist Cohan (The Last Tycoons) profiles four classmates who attended the elite Phillips Academy in Andover, Mass., with him in the 1970s and died by their early 40s: Will Daniel, a social worker who was run over by a taxi while walking drunk; Harry Bull, a CEO who drowned with his daughters in a boating accident; Jack Berman, the most sympathetic figure, a lawyer who was killed in a mass shooting; and, most spectacularly, Camelot heir John F. Kennedy Junior, who crashed his plane into the Atlantic, killing himself and his wife and sister-in-law. But there’s little distinction in their stories as Cohan relates them: pot-smoking, wavering grades, and indulgent schoolmasters at Andover; assists from family wealth; no startling successes or noble failures. Cohan’s attempts at pathos fall flat (“Daniel grappled his entire life with how to handle the fame and adulation that came from being the grandchild of [Harry Truman]”), and his theme of youthful promise snuffed out rings hollow, especially in the gossipy Kennedy section, which reveals a profound lack of promise—Kennedy repeated 12th grade—fulfilled by lasting underachievement. The result is an uninvolving study of privileged men felled more by bad judgment than tragic fate. (July)

Reviewed on 04/05/2019 | Details & Permalink

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The Second Mountain: The Quest for a Moral Life

David Brooks. Random House, $28 (384p) ISBN 978-0-8129-9326-4

In this ardent follow-up to The Road to Character, New York Times columnist Brooks explores his thinking about factors that form a moral life. He confesses that he wishes to “in part compensate for the limitations of” his previous book, as he no longer believes that character formation is based entirely on individual achievements. Instead, Brooks now professes that one builds character by giving oneself away to a community—or to a cause out of love—a premise that manifests itself in his theory of “the two mountains.” For Brooks, the summit of the first mountain is traditional success based on one’s achievements. Along the way, one can expect failure or setbacks. Through the ensuing stage of suffering (the valley), one gets the strength and life experience to commit to climbing the second mountain, where Brooks believes true joy can be found. Enjoying one’s work, getting married, studying philosophy or religion, and establishing community helps to form the path between the mountains, Brooks writes. As he teases apart his metaphor, Brooks relates his own experiences: a newfound love after divorce and a religious awakening that has brought him to the cusp of Christianity from Judaism. While some readers will find his revelations obvious, Brooks’s melding of personal responsibility with respect for community will have broad appeal. (Apr.)

Reviewed on 04/05/2019 | Details & Permalink

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The Royal Society and the Invention of Modern Science

Adrian Tinniswood. Basic, $25 (240p) ISBN 978-1-5416-7358-8

Tinniswood (The Long Weekend), a University of Buckingham history research fellow, devotes this modest, accessible chronicle to the Royal Society of London and its role in developing modern scientific study. Writing in a conversational tone, he follows the Society’s successes and struggles since its 1660 formation, revisiting famous early members—including, in addition to Isaac Newton, natural philosopher Robert Boyle; Robert Hooke, discoverer of the cell; and architect Christopher Wren—and early experiments in which, he admits to squeamish modern readers, puppies and kittens routinely lost their lives. Tinniswood discusses, perhaps in excessive detail, the Society’s governance, including such missteps as its reluctance, up to the 1940s, to allow women admission. However, he takes care to note the Society’s many accomplishments, among them the 1665 publication of the first (and still publishing) scientific journal, Philosophical Transactions, and the Society’s sponsorship of Captain James Cook’s 1768 expedition, which resulted in the mapping of New Zealand and Australia’s coastlines. Tinniswood also touches on the Society’s involvement in contemporary issues; for example, climate change, cybersecurity, and genetically modified organisms. Science buffs will find Tinniswood’s account professionally written if nothing extraordinary, but it does present a credible case for the Royal Society’s historic and continuing importance. (June)

Reviewed on 04/05/2019 | Details & Permalink

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The Ministry of Truth: The Biography of George Orwell’s 1984

Dorian Lynskey. Doubleday, $26.95 (368p) ISBN 978-0-385-54405-4

Lynskey (33 Revolutions Per Minute) offers an entertaining but scattershot study that places George Orwell’s 1984 in a variety of contexts: the author’s life and times, the book’s precursors in the science fiction genre, and its subsequent place in popular culture. Lynskey delves into how Orwell’s harrowing Spanish Civil War experiences shaped his concern with political disinformation by exposing him to the deceptiveness of people he’d once regarded as allies against fascism: the Soviets and their Western apologists. Another section offers a history of Edward Bellamy’s 1888 bestseller Looking Backwards, as a leading example of the once-thriving genre of utopian literature and as an optimistic counterpoint to 1984’s totalitarian nightmare. While Lynskey calls this a “biography” of 1984, anyone expecting a granular examination of the novel itself will likely be disappointed. Lynskey spreads himself too thin, veering away from his purported subject: is it important to know, for example, that H.G. Wells, identified here as a major influence on Orwell, was a difficult child? Lysnkey is strongest, by far, in his analysis of the novel’s influence on rock musicians, especially David Bowie. While his book offers some intriguing insights, one longs for a stronger and more intense focus on 1984 itself. (June)

Reviewed on 04/05/2019 | Details & Permalink

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Clearing the Air: The Beginning and the End of Air Pollution

Tim Smedley. Bloomsbury, $28 (320p) ISBN 978-1-4729-5331-5

Journalist and first-time author Smedley challenges readers to take charge of their breathing space in this disappointing layperson’s guide to how ozone, ammonia, nitrogen dioxide, and other pollutants are poisoning the air and causing extreme health problems—smaller brain volumes, premature births, DNA damage—around the world, particularly in urban areas. He blames paddy fires, Diwali firecrackers, diesel engines, coal plants, wood fires, and just about everything that humans ignite or eat. “The reality is that most of us don’t know what pollutants we are exposed to on a daily basis,” Smedley warns, offering a crash course on particulate matter, “the tiny particles that float in the air, from road dust to soot, and cause the most damage to our health.” He discusses clean air battles in France, Germany, India, and the U.S., and visits Helsinki wielding a hand-held pollution monitor, but the predominantly British sources and interviewees give a lopsided feel to a global problem. Meanwhile, Smedley’s recommended fixes—for commuters to “quit our car habit,” cities to increase “green space,” and be more pedestrian- and cyclist-friendly, and governments to pass more stringent regulations—tend to the tiresomely obvious. This well-intentioned call to action is, unfortunately, unlikely to have much effect on an important public health issue. (Sept.)

Reviewed on 04/05/2019 | Details & Permalink

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Indecent Advances: A Hidden History of True Crime and Prejudice Before Stonewall

James Polchin. Counterpoint, $26 (272p) ISBN 978-1-64009-189-4

In this insightful but somewhat gruesome debut work, cultural historian Polchin teases out details of the lives of urban, mostly white gay men from the 1920s through the 1960s via an analysis of newspapers’ high-profile, “moral outrage and fascination”–driven true crime reports. As he writes, these stories “reflected and amplified the era’s social prejudices and state-sanctioned discriminations” and showed the dangers, such as opportunistic thieves and police entrapment, that “queer men were forced to navigate... in their search for sexual adventure and social life.” He looks at cultural trends, such as the courtroom defense of “acute homosexual panic” in response to “indecent advances” from the victim, but also digs deeply into individual high-profile cases, often quoting the most lurid details from the original reporting, which will likely delight true crime fans and satisfy academics but deeply disturb other readers. Polchin finishes by recounting the beginnings of progress, as the 1948 Kinsey Report began to influence the understanding of sexuality, the Mattachine Society promoted the idea of homosexuals as a social minority, and ONE magazine looked critically at newspaper reports of crime and highlighted a “collective experience of injury and abuse.” Polchin’s investigation of several decades of queer American life is an intelligent but darkly voyeuristic experience. (June)

Reviewed on 04/05/2019 | Details & Permalink

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Lebron, Inc.: The Making of a Billion-Dollar Athlete

Brian Windhorst. Grand Central, $28 (256p) ISBN 978-1-5387-3087-4

In workmanlike prose, sportswriter Windhorst (Return of the King) focuses on NBA superstar Lebron James’s life as a highly successful businessman. James earned $765 million in salary and endorsements during his 19 years in the NBA, and, as Windhorst writes, “LeBron’s awareness of how he can use his celebrity and popularity to gain leverage in business transactions has fed his bottom line and enabled him to funnel money to charities he cares about without having to reach into his own pocket.” Windhorst chronicles how James evolved from being a high school, first-round draft pick who lived in poverty, to a superstar who had deals with Beats by Dre, Coca-Cola, McDonald’s, Microsoft, Nike, and others. Windhorst also notes James’s less-than-stellar business gambles, such as the ill-fated Decision TV show in 2010, where Lebron announced that he was leaving the Cleveland Cavaliers to play for the Miami Heat. James’s impoverished upbringing, Windhorst points out, fueled his interest in philanthropic projects, which include building a school for disadvantaged students in his hometown of Akron, Ohio. Whether James “reaches his goal of team ownership or he finds a new pursuit is yet to be seen,” Windhorst writes, but “his horizons are still expanding.” This is a shoo-in for business-minded sports fans. (Apr.)

Reviewed on 04/05/2019 | Details & Permalink

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Stronghold: One Man’s Quest to Save the World’s Wild Salmon

Tucker Malarkey. Spiegel & Grau, $28 (340p) ISBN 978-1-9848-0169-2

In this captivating narrative, novelist Malarkey (An Obvious Enchantment) explores global salmon conservation through the prism of her enigmatic cousin Guido Rahr. A master fly fisherman, Rahr realized in 1989 the steelhead and salmon he adored were becoming extinct. Transforming from a fishing bum into a Yale-educated environmentalist, he created the Wild Salmon Center nonprofit to preserve “stronghold” rivers unspoiled by human development found in only a few places, most notably Russia’s Kamchatka Peninsula. Rahr’s passion for the outdoors and dogged pursuit of sponsors puts him in the company of such notables as Harrison Ford and Ted Turner as well as fearsome Russian oligarchs—all of whom are charmed by the fly fisherman’s objective to save fish and wildlife habitat—and allows him to gain entrée to untouched rivers and experience the “sacred moment” of catching an elusive 70-pound taimen. Political corruption and Russian gamesmanship, however, end his organization’s work in the country, but its “conservation wins” include aiding in getting “over 70 percent of Russian salmon fisheries MSC [Marine Stewardship Council] certified” and “the designation of six new national or regional parks in salmon strongholds.” Malarkey effortlessly glides between topics, making for an excellent mix of adventure, geopolitical deal making, and ecological and environmental reporting. (July)

Reviewed on 04/05/2019 | Details & Permalink

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Motherland: A Memoir of Love, Loathing, and Longing

Elissa Altman. Ballantine, $27 (272p) ISBN 978-0-399-18158-0

Washington Post columnist Altman (Poor Man’s Feast) shares the intimate and fascinating story of her alternately loving, turbulent, and toxic relationship with her mother. Growing up in 1970s Forest Hills, Queens—the only child of a publishing executive father and a former model and nightclub singer mother—the author was sent conflicting messages: while her mother Rita critiqued her daughter’s weight, clothing, and overall appearance, her father treated her to lunches at upscale restaurants and bought her a tweed suit and oversized coat. Altman adored her parents (who divorced after 16 years of marriage), but was nevertheless troubled by their idiosyncrasies, particularly those of her mother—a narcissistic woman who was addicted to purchasing and applying makeup and obsessed with weight, persistently urging Altman to slim down, get her highlights done, and be more like her. Altman’s relationships with others, meanwhile, would only heighten her mother’s competitive nature: she disapproved of Altman’s friends and lovers, is jealous of her relationship with Altman’s father, and is irritated (“like lemon in a paper cut”) by Altman’s graphic designer wife Susan, even after 19 years. Throughout her life Altman struggles to balance devotion to her mother with a need to maintain boundaries for her own self-preservation, all of which comes to a moment of clarity when Altman decides to have children. Altman’s memoir is an incisive look at complex mother-daughter attachments. (Aug.)

Reviewed on 04/05/2019 | Details & Permalink

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The Fabulous Flying Mrs. Miller: A True Story of Adventure, Danger, Romance and Derring-Do

Carol Baxter. Scribe, $20 (432p) ISBN 978-1-947534-77-3

Baxter (Black Widow) offers another popular history with a criminal angle in this thrilling biography. Jessie Beveridge Miller Pugh was born in 1901 in Southern Cross, Australia. Nicknamed Chubbie, she was known in headlines as Mrs. Miller, the first woman to fly from London to Sydney in 1927. She was a passenger in that stunt, which she organized and raised capital for. Miller earned her pilot’s license two years later; “having total control of a plane thrilled her.” Miller, her friend Amelia Earhart, and other women aviators flew in the U.S.’s first women’s air race (which Will Rogers called the Powderpuff Derby). Miller made more headlines when she was the first woman to fly solo from Pittsburgh to Cuba, and even more headlines when her married lover died in Miami and her other married lover was accused of shooting him. Or was it suicide? Baxter exploits the era’s copious newspaper reports in retelling Miller’s story, which includes a burned hotel, a damaged tail skid, harrowing fog, numerous competition wins, and dramatic court testimony. Readers will enjoy coming along for the ride. (May)

Reviewed on 04/05/2019 | Details & Permalink

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